Natl Trust Green Lab director: "urban grain" has more econ and social value, but needs patient $

From Atlantic writer Julia Levitt: "Liz Dunn is a champion for Main Street.  In 1997 she launched her development practice Dunn & Hobbes, which specializes in new-build urban infill projects and adaptive reuse.  Dunn extended her reach beyond Seattle three years ago when she became consulting director of the Preservation Green Lab, an initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  She speaks frequently to audiences in the U.S. and abroad about the importance of nurturing "urban grain" with more sensitive approaches to urban infill." JL: The term 'urban grain' seems largely qualitative.  Are there certain aspects of urban grain that draw a predictable response?

LD: Yes, I think there is a set of attributes.  I think we could measure, for example, economic and social activity on blocks that have a larger number and variety of skinnier buildings, compared to blocks occupied by large, homogeneous buildings. Measuring how the pattern and mix of buildings impacts urban activity would provide a way to value organic, incremental development that would be more quantitative, which would in turn inform land use policies.

JL: What are your suggestions for creating policies and practices that would support surgical infill without over-regulating?

LD: My concern is that suburban-style developments are being dropped onto urban sites.  There are a number of issues at play here that have to do with the scale of global real estate finance and the skill sets of larger traditional developers, that don't lend themselves well to building surgically in a community context.

The scale and speed at which pools of real estate money want to be deployed is mismatched with local infill opportunities.  It's naïve to think that a huge fund that wants returns from deals in less than five years will engage in granular development that leads to better neighborhood economic performance over the long run.  What's needed is a locavore model for real estate investing, in which local patient money is connected with smaller opportunities in a given district.

JL: Edward Glaeser argues that redevelopment of low-density urban areas is necessary to supply housing at pace with demand to keep housing prices affordable.  What is the argument for urban grain?

LD: This question is far more complex than supply and demand.  We should measure the value of built form in terms of the intensity of human use that it fosters.  In cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, some of the most economically and socially successful neighborhoods are the ones with a stock of older, three- to six-story buildings.  These neighborhoods have unbelievable street life and entrepreneurial business activity, and they also have density between 30 and 100 residential units per acre."  Full article here.